Awarded the 2015 Jesse H. Jones Award for fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters
Named by Kirkus Reviews as one of the Best Fiction Books of 2014
Remembering Jackie Onassis
By Elizabeth Crook
May 27 1994
Editor’s note: Austin writer Elizabeth Crook had a close working relationship with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who died May 19 in New York of cancer. Here Crook pays tribute to the editor of her recently published novel, Promised Lands.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was my editor. Even now it sounds pretentious to say it, and over the years I worked with her I never quite got used to the fact.
She purchased my first manuscript on behalf of Doubleday after 15 editors at other publishing houses had rejected it. I was expecting a rejection letter through my agent when she called me personally to say she liked the manuscript and wanted to “acquire” it.
I often found people more interested in the fact that she was editing my book than in the fact that I was writing it. I remember moments of feeling disgruntled, as if she had stolen my show. I began to stammer when people asked who my editor was, wanting to say, and not wanting to say, and not knowing whether to call her Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis or Jackie Onassis or Mrs. Onassis. She never gave me any clues about such things and I never dared to ask, knowing it would be a reference to the fact that she was famous: a fact that neither of us ever referred to, as it was far too personal.
It seemed, in the beginning, that she trusted me before I had earned it. I became skittish. Not knowing what, if anything, I had done to deserve her trust, I feared what I might do by accident to lose it. Not that she confided private thoughts to me. Rather, she trusted me not to ask about them. I never did. I felt that in a small, implicit way I had been enlisted as another guardian of Camelot.
Oddly enough it was her shyness that put me at ease. I only met with her a few times in person; most of our work was done through correspondence and over the telephone. But she was very much a working editor. I have kept most of her written editorial comments, stuffing them too carelessly in a disorderly file marked “Doubleday.” Looking through them now I see the ways she shaped my stories.
She knew where the drama was, and where it wasn’t. I see the words “CUT” and “DELETE” many times, written in capitals and underlined for emphasis. Page 334: “Cut baby crying.” Page 345: “Cut chickens.” Page 364: “Overkill. Can you delete?” On page 101 of one rough draft she has written, “Much of Kate and William’s relationship is cloying. You must eliminate some of her angst, their coy dialogues, her hemming and hawing, etc.” And pages later, “Too much Coon Dog. Too much Crucita. Don’t let yourself go overboard with Coon Dog. There is too much about the stump of his tail.” She was always as atuned to what should be left out as to what should be put in. “De la Rosa — one could fall in love with him. But when you overdo describing him, it undercuts his power, makes him sound out of Central Casting.” And “Baby Samuel is so overdescribed it could turn one off babies.”
It is the affirmations, not the strictures, though, that I remember best. “You must be glowing,” she wrote in reference to a particularly good review. “I have never seen anything so superlative in my life.” In one hand-written letter I will always treasure, she wrote, “I am so impressed by what you have done, I just can’t tell you. You have pared down and tightened a sprawling overwritten first draft into an immensely moving novel . . . Bravo and with affection, Jackie.”
She was motherly, that way. So warm and personal in a professional relationship, that I often felt uncertain how I should respond. We were comrades, not friends. I knew nothing of her private life, though she sometimes signed her letters, “Love, Jackie,” which both touched and disconcerted me, placing me in the quandary of how I should sign mine to her.
Yet with all her kindness, she had no tolerance for sap. “Don’t allow yourself to be repetitious or sentimental,” she wrote in reference to an early draft. “It back-fires.” Page 56: “Melodrama; I’d eliminate.” Page 308: “This is pretty trite. Can you recast?” Page 600: “Overwritten, overwrought.”
She cared that every sentence be correct in language, in emotion, and in detail. Page 192: “Eliminate ‘with’ and put a comma after ‘doorway.’ You do this often — incorrectly use ‘with’ as a connective to cobble together two disparate thoughts.” Page 643: “’hocking mucus.’ This is the third or fourth time you have used this image. The reader gets irritated.” Page 857: “’Gaucho hat.’ Gaucho is Argentinian. Would that term have been used here?”
In the beginning, I asked if she would prefer to see each chapter as I wrote it, or several at a time. She chose the latter. “But if you need some hand holding through the forest,” she wrote, “you must do whatever makes you feel best.”
She sent me the first copy of my second novel at about the time she was diagnosed. Right up to the month before she died she continued to champion the book at Doubleday, pressing the editor-in-chief for more promotion funds. In my last communication from her, in the midst of all the turmoil that goes with the publication of a book, she wrote, “Stay calm! You have a winner.”
There were times I disagreed with her suggestions. She wasn’t always right. But she sustained my effort and her editing improved my books in ways impossible to measure. To use a childish image, which she likely would have labeled maudlin and affected, and which in fact is, but to use it anyway because it keeps returning to me in a vivid way, I see her as a fairy godmother. She appeared at a difficult time and gave me what I wanted most — to see my books in print. Then she disappeared.